It's the dog days of summer, so that's the perfect time for Andrew Sobotka and his friends to think about ice hockeynaturally.
Sobotka, 25, who lives in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, is the president and assistant captain for the Chicago Gay Hockey Association (CGHA), which is hosting its inaugural gay hockey tournamentthe Market Days ClassicAug. 12-14 at the Heartland Ice Arena in Lincolnwood, the same venue used for the hockey competition in the 2006 Gay Games.
"After attending tournaments in Madison (Wis.), New York City, Toronto and other cities, we thought it would be fun to welcome all the friends we made to our city to play," Sobotka said. "We've got a good relationship with the other gay hockey associations and we wanted to beat them on our home ice. We also thought that with the burst of energy the CGHA has gotten over the last two years, it would be fun to host a tournament."
There are eight confirmed teams (as of press time), with players coming from Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, St. Louis, New York, Ottawa, Michigan and elsewhere. There even is one player coming from Stockholm, Sweden.
"First and foremost, we're [hosting the tournament] to spread our love of hockey in Chicago," Sobotka said. "We want to make sure all of the out-of-towners are welcomed to Chicago and shown a good time and we're hoping to build stronger bonds among the gay players from around the U.S. and Canada.
"Gay hockey is hockey. Keep in mind that while we're called a gay hockey association, we're all-inclusive. We have men, women, straight, gay and everything in between represented at this tournament. We wanted to host a tournament in Chicago that's tolerant of everyone, a place where all feel welcome on the ice."
Take, for instance, the CGHA. The team's current roster is 25, most male. The team's players range in age from 21 to 49, with the majority in their 20s, and the gay-to-straight ratio is 4:1.
"We're an educated, diverse team," said Sobotka, who works in IT operations for CSG Media. He is in his second year with the CGHA and plays defense.
Sobotka has been skating since he was 2 and been playing hockey at various levels for about 20 years.
The CGHA, which Chuck Jacobson founded in 2002, is now in its first season playing at Johnny's Ice House (C3 division), located in the West Loop. The CGHA previously has played at leagues in Vernon Hills, Rolling Meadows and Northbrook. Its current league and all former suburban-based leagues are straight.
Sobotka said the team has not encountered any homophobic incidents at Johnny's, but, "when we played in the suburbs, we had some minor incidents."
"Overall, I don't think [playing against a predominantly gay team] bothers anyone," he said. "If they do happen to have a perception of us before the game starts, I can guarantee that their ideas change once we hit the ice. We're a competitive team that likes to win. We play well together and we don't let the fact that we're gay stand between us and a win. We're hockey players who happen to be gay, and I think other players respect us for being who we are and playing some good hockey.
"Johnny's is the standard for leagues in the Chicago area. It's the best-run, most competitive and most fun league around. Everything else strives to be Johnny's and some get close, but nothing really compares. The level of competition at Johnny's is a step up from where we were previously playing, [the North Shore Ice Rink in Northbrook,] and it's been a welcome change. The teams are all respectful of us and we haven't had any issues being the one gay team in a league of 18 teams."
Sobotka said the Market Days Classic likely will not become an annual event, but the team will no doubt host future tournaments.
The early favorites to win the Market Days Classic title are Vancouver, Ottawa/Toronto and Chicago.
"Short-term, I think we need to get through this tournament and make sure everyone has fun," Sobotka said. "Long-term, I think we need to continue doing what we do best to grow the organization. We need to break out into more than one team so that we can allow more players to join. We need to hold more events, so our visibility in not just the gay community, but in the Chicago hockey community continues to grow. And we need to make sure we keep giving back since we are a charitable organization.
"I wouldn't say it's a surprise, but [planning the tournament] has taken a ton of work so far. Finding sponsors, recruiting teams and players, coordinating to schedule ice, referees, order jerseys and so on. It's been a team effort and I'm happy with how it has come together."
The main sponsors for the tournament are Crew Bar & Grill and Goose Island 312.